by Kristi Banker, Dramaturgy Intern
While Cyrano is hardly mired in historical details, the play is informed by the background of 17th-century France: the first four acts take place in 1640, the fifth in 1655. During the 1600s, France functioned under the control of an increasingly powerful monarch, fought in a series of wars, and fostered a thriving literary culture. At a rose-tinted glance, this was a time of daring deeds and intrigue, of military valor and intellectual growth, a time in which the intrepid individual could still prove his (or her) mettle.
The Might of Monarchy
“Monarchy…is manifest in the person of our French kings—monarchs who are sovereign, absolute, loved and revered, feared and obeyed—whose grandeur and power is such that there never was a Monarchy in which the kings were so amply endowed.”
—L’Assemblée des notables de France, faites par le Roy en sa ville de Rouen,
avec les noms desdictes esleus et notables, 1617
The French monarchy consolidated power over the course of the 17th Century, moving toward an absolutism perhaps best exemplified by Louis XIV’s alleged declaration: “L’Etat, c’est moi,” or “the state is me.” Although this absolutism had not yet reached its height by the time of Cyrano, the King was seen as a figure ordained by God and swathed in glory, whose most trivial whim influenced the lives of nobles and the daily doings of Parisian citizens.
Cyrano coincides with the rules of two kings (Louis XIII and Louis XIV), who acted in conjunction with two primary ministers (Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, respectively). During the first four acts of the play (set in 1640), France was under the rule of Louis XIII. Louis XIII became king at the age of eight (his mother, Marie de Medici, served as Regent until the boy came of age), and was largely considered an ineffectual ruler. Indeed, throughout Louis XIII’s rule, the King seemed a figurehead, while Cardinal Richelieu largely directed affairs of state. When Louis XIII died in 1643 (only a year after Richelieu), he left France in the hands of his four-year-old heir, Louis XIV. France once more came under the regency of a boy King’s mother, while Cardinal Mazarin took up Richelieu’s position and power. Even after Louis XIV came of age in 1651, the Cardinal and the Queen continued to weigh heavily on matters of governance; Louis wouldn’t take full control until Mazarin’s death in 1661. Thus, at the time of the play’s fifth act (1655), France was under the control of Louis XIV, his mother, and his minister.